It happened one day that the Blessed Lady of Dark Forever went for a walk in her garden of black leaves, past the Seven Broken Doorways, and down to the ferries, where the refugees arrive in endless outpourings. She was watching her servants—”facilitators” they called themselves these days—play a game of Snatch The Bone when she heard whispers behind her, then laughter, then more whispers. When she looked around she saw no one but the endless rolling landscape of the dead. She tried to tell herself it was just the usual back and forth between the oldtimers and newcomers, but the sound stayed with her, itchy under her long gray dress. Finally she had to admit it. Her sisters were meeting somewhere. Without her.
Forever called Gatekeeper Number 7, a young man with blond hair, creased striped pants, sharp teeth, and satin buckled shoes. “I’m going away for awhile,” she told him. “Take care of things.” He smiled, pushed the tip of his finger against an upper tooth until a single drop of lavender blood appeared, then flicked it on the ground, outwardly a sign of obedience, but really—She said “No re-decorating. No parades. And no puppets to frighten the children. I won’t be gone very long.” The servant bowed his head.
She found her sisters in an abandoned library of burnt books. She flung open the door, but instead of embarrassment, her sisters clapped their hands. “You came!” Ocean said, and Sky added, “Now we can start.”
“Start?” Forever said, and wondered if they’d sent some invitation the staff had managed to forget. That crowd of dead beetles the other day—they had seemed determined to reach her. She should pay attention to such things.
Ocean said, “The game. The contest.”
Of course. What else but another competition? It was Sky’s doing, it always was. Ocean, as innocent as foam, just thought it was fun, and a memory of their childhood, but Sky always had to win. It was what drew her back from the edges. Forever told herself she should leave. Go back to work. But if she didn’t play when would she ever see her sisters? “What is it this time?” she said.
It was simple. They would choose a skin woman and try to predict what would happen to her over the course of a single year. The loser, the one who strayed furthest from the truth, would have to spend a day among the humans, disguised as one of them. How easy, Forever thought. Fortune-telling was her domain after all, for what prediction was more certain than death? “Who chooses?” she said.
Sky waved a hand. “You can choose. You were always the most trustworthy.”
Forever cast her mind across the world, spotted a young woman whose body was two-thirds eaten by cancer. A wave of her hand summoned a picture of the woman in front of them. “A year from now,” she said, “this girl will be settled down below, and her family will be already bored from weekly visits to her grave to pull weeds and scatter poppies.”
Ocean smiled. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I say, a year from now, she will put down fresh roots.”
Sky added “And reach up to the Sun.” Forever laughed. Sky said, “Oh, and skin people will come to her with seeds and offerings, asking for help to escape, well, you.” The Mother of Silence laughed louder. They sat down to watch.
The Kindly Ones (as people sometimes called cancer, hoping to placate it) ate more and more of the girl, gnawing their way from the inside out. The doctors offered more medicine, more cutting, more invisible fire, but she refused. She began a journal, a record of everything she loved. A friend read it and told her to let others know the wonders they ignored as they rushed through life. She wrote a blog, Chronicle of the World’s Beauty, that every day was read by more and more people.
One day her parents carried her out to a grassy bank at a place where three rivers meet. A group of sick children had gathered there to meet her. “Please don’t leave us,” they said. “We need to know you’re here.”
“That’s not up to me,” she said. “I wrote about that last Tuesday, don’t you remember?”
The children stretched themselves on the dirt, as much as their diseased bodies could manage. “Please,” they begged the Heavens, the Earth, and all the worlds between, “let us keep her. We need her more than Death.” A flash of light made them close their eyes, and when they looked again the sick girl had vanished. In her place stood a lilac tree, tall and fragrant. If the children looked closely they could spot excerpts from the Chronicle of the World’s Beauty on every leaf.
Word spread, and within a year the sick had begun to come from across the world to touch the leaves to their sores and broken places. They left flowers and seeds as offerings, and more and more came every day.
“You cheated,” Forever whispered, too angry to shout.
“And how did we do that?” Sky asked. “We didn’t change her. It’s not our fault her whining and moaning hit the right frequency.” Sky smiled sweetly and shrugged.
Forever didn’t answer. She blamed herself. If she hadn’t been so certain she might have been careful. She sighed. She’d lost the game, but it was only one day. She would walk into some mud woman body, let the Sun flicker across the sky, then return to her work, while her sisters gloated. They’d get over it, and so would she.
She chose a young woman in a small city, healthy enough so her possessor wouldn’t have to suffer any pain, smart because Forever didn’t want to be bored, friends but no husband, parents, or children to make annoying demands or notice the difference under the mask. “Karen,” the woman’s name was, and just before Forever was about to walk into her, she thought how silly it was to worry so much for just one day.
But what if she got lost, or something distracted her? She summoned Gatekeeper Number 3, whose creased pants and slicked black hair and ruby cufflinks made her want to call him Rudolph. She told him what she was about to do and instructed him to make sure her skin body got some kind of reminder.
She entered Karen in a booth in a restaurant, where the woman was having lunch with her boss, a publicist for area artists. It was a little like floating and then being sucked down by a heavy weight. For a moment she thrashed about inside, and must have made the body jerk, because a glass of ice tea spilled all over a plate of French fries, and a notebook, and a proposal in a yellow folder. It was 3:12 in the afternoon.
Karen’s boss took her hand. “Hey, are you all right?” he said, as a blank-faced Mexican man came over with a cloth.
Forever wanted to leap at the boss, cut through his neck with these Karen teeth that had just ground up bits of dead cow. Instead she seemed to back away, go somewhere deeper inside. The Karen voice said “Sorry. I don’t—I don’t know what happened there.” She looked down at the blur of tea and ink. “Oh God, I’m sorry,” she said.
Her boss, who was named Phillip, waved his hand. “Don’t worry about it.”
Karen stared at her own hand, wiggled the fingers, looked at the lines, imagined she could see the web of blood under the skin. Embarrassed, she put her hand in her lap and focused on Phillip.
As they left the restaurant a little boy with shiny black hair held out his hand towards her. A piece of soft wood lay on it, a crude carving of a boat. “Would you like this?” he said politely. Karen stared at him. “I made it in art class. The teacher said we had to give it to someone.”
Karen smiled. “Why don’t you give it to your mother? I’m sure she would really like it.”
The boy shook his head. “It’s supposed to be a stranger.”
“Oh, well okay. I mean, thank you. It’s very nice.” The boat felt warm and almost sharp, as if he’d carved it out of nettles. As the boy ran off, Karen dropped the toy in her purse.
Phillip said “Well, that’s really weird.”
“We should get back to work,” Karen said.
That night Karen squinted at her face in the bathroom mirror. She just couldn’t shake the sense that something was wrong. It was like—like she was looking at someone else, or someone else was looking at her. She should go to the doctor. Call for an appointment first thing in the morning. But she woke up late, with just enough time to put her makeup on and grab a coffee on the way to the office. There she stared at endless streams of emails until she could think of nothing else.
At twelve minutes after three she picked up the carving of the boat the boy had given her, turned it over in her hand, rubbed it with her thumb. Something about it—then Phil called to discuss an account and she dropped the boat back in her purse.
Over the next few weeks she found herself too busy to think of much besides the next appointment. Except, every day, at 3:12, a queasiness came over her, like a cyclic fever, so strong that she began to make sure she was always somewhere she could sit down and not say anything for a minute or so. After a month of this, including two check-ups by her doctor, she decided to go see a therapist.
Dr. Connell suggested the strange sensations might stem from a forgotten childhood trauma that had taken place on some long ago afternoon, at 3:12. Maybe her mother did something one day when Karen came home from school, something innocent that the child misinterpreted as fearful. But why would it come up now, Karen asked. Who knows, Dr. Connell said. Some perfectly innocuous incident might have pushed the old trauma just a little closer to the surface.
For the next month Karen did her best to bring her secret trouble to the surface. But nothing came to her. One of Phil’s clients, an astrologer pianist (or was it pianist astrologer?) told her of a medium who could go into a trance and “journey” inside you. Karen dismissed the idea at first, but finally called for an appointment. Andrew Crow-Talker, as the young man called himself, had an office in his white two story home. He led her to a pleasant room with large windows overlooking woods and asked her to lie down on a massage table, fully clothed, he assured her.
“Relax” he told her. “You don’t have to do anything, I do it all.” He half closed his eyes and murmured something to himself as he moved his hands back and forth about four inches from her body. At 3:12 he touched her chest above her breasts and the top of her head. For a moment nothing happened, then he cried out “Sisters!” and a moment later passed out.
Karen got off the table and nervously shook his shoulders until his eyes opened and he stared at her, looking perplexed. Before she could ask “What happened? What did you see?” he said to her “What are you?”
Karen jumped up, grabbed some money from her purse, and set it on the massage table. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’d better go. I hope you’re okay.”
Over the next couple of days she thought she should call Mr. Crow-Talker, but couldn’t make herself do it. When her next visit with Dr. Connell came she didn’t say anything about the encounter until nearly the end of the hour. Finally she got up her courage and told him what had happened, leaving out only the man’s strange question at the end. “Do you think he’ll sue me?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t think so, Dr. Connell said. “He goes into trances professionally. I would think what happens there is his risk.” Karen nodded. “I’m interested in what he said, though. Didn’t you tell me you were an only child?”
“I am” Karen said. “I don’t know why he said that.”
Dr. Connell made that hmm sound they must teach in therapy school. “Maybe you have a shadow-self. A kind of psychic twin, or sister, whom you’ve hidden away and need to release.” He smiled. “Apparently she’s very powerful.”
“What about the 3:12 thing?”
He shrugged, “Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe once you free the shadow, the sister, the outward symptom will go away and we’ll never actually find out. Would that be a problem?”
“I guess not.”
Over the next few sessions they looked at possible secret selves, from mythological images of fierce warriors and beloved mother spirits, to high school characters, like cheerleaders and prom queens. Sometimes they were actual pictures Karen was supposed to stare at and see if she reacted. At other times she had to make up stories about an imaginary life. None of it seemed to trigger anything.
Finally, Karen decided that maybe all her problems just came from working too hard. Maybe what was missing from her life was just old-fashioned romance. When she’d first started with Dr. Connell he’d asked about relationships, and she’d just said she didn’t have one. Now she admitted she’d been hurt, by someone named Bart, and ever since had avoided even the chance of connecting with anyone.
Only, she could hardly remember Bart’s face or anything about him except that he liked model trains. Her memory lapse bothered her, but she didn’t tell Dr. Connell.
She went to a singles retreat, in a center that promised romance and spirituality (it sounded safe, she thought). The first apparently came in a cocktail party Friday evening, the second in a chant and drum ceremony late Saturday night. She took the wooden boat with her. Lately, she’d been taking it everywhere, and panicked if she thought she left it behind.
At the retreat a man named Bobby Hand took an interest in her. She liked Bobby, he was funny, and handsome, with black hair and deep eyes, and he knew about books and movies, not just television. Most of all she liked his name, it meant something, it was not just a designation. He joked with her that he was a Secret Master, one of those saints that pretend to be ordinary humans so they can help people in need. “And what help do you give them?” Karen asked.
Bobby smiled. He had a nice slow grin. “I help women. With my hand. Late at night.”
Karen laughed, but she was blushing too. “Better not spread that around too much,” she said. “The government will investigate you for unlicensed salvation.”
“Hey, I’ve got a license. I just keep it secret. Remember? My sacred mission?” She didn’t answer, only looked down, her eyes wet. “What’s wrong?” Bobby said. “What’d I say?”
“Nothing. I’m just—I don’t know, I’m just being silly.” She wiped below her eyes delicately, with her thumb and finger, then tried to smile away her embarrassment.
“Hey,” he said, “suppose you discovered you had a secret calling. A spiritual mission of some sort. What name would you choose?”
She said “If my calling is supposed to be secret, wouldn’t I have to not tell anyone?” He rolled his eyes, and she laughed. “Okay,” she said. “Let me think. Forever.”
“Karen Forever. That’s what I’d call myself.”
“Karen Forever” he repeated, his voice soft, almost solemn. Anger flashed in her, she had no idea why, but for a second she wanted to hit him just for saying her name, as if he had no right. But she hid it, and it passed, and when he kissed her she was able to soften her lips into his.
After the retreat they traveled back to the city together. As they left the wooded center and waited for the shuttle to take them to the train station Karen heard a far-off noise, weeping and yells of pain. When she looked around, flashes of darkness seemed to black out pieces of the world. She found herself staring at something very far away, lines and lines of stooped people clutching small packages against their bodies. She made a soft noise, gripped the wooden boat in her jacket pocket. “Are you all right?” Bobby asked. “Is something wrong?” She couldn’t think what to say so she said nothing, and then seconds later everything was back to normal.
She told Dr. Connell that Bobby Hand didn’t really excite her but she felt comfortable around him. The therapist asked “Is that so bad?” and she said “No, of course not. I guess.”
They were dating for seven weeks, and sleeping together for two, when Karen went to a late-season family barbecue at his parents’ house. She’d met them before, at an outdoor concert—”safe space,” Bobby had called it—so there wasn’t a lot of pressure. They made salmon for her, which was thoughtful, because for some reason she could not seem to eat meat, not since that day in the diner. As she later told Dr. Connell, she wasn’t expecting any trouble. And then she met Eleanora, Bobby’s sister.
Eleanora Hand wasn’t trouble, she was exhilaration. Very thin, with long blond hair and delicate quick fingers, and hazel eyes that seemed as large as a child’s, she talked about dead poets as if they were friends, and television vampires as if they lived down the block. She tossed salad as if she was creating a new universe, and played volleyball as if she was destroying an old one. Karen laughed with her, and stared at her, and at one point had to take Bobby’s hand to stop herself following Eleanora into the bathroom. 3:12 came and passed with only the slightest crackle on her skin. That night she told Bobby she wanted to make an early night, and after he dropped her off she called Eleanora and talked with her for two hours.
“Oh God,” she told Dr. Connell, “do you think I’m a lesbian?”
“That’s something no one can tell you but yourself. But would it be so terrible if you were?”
“No. No, I don’t—I mean, I was never like that. I had friends, you know, but—we talked about boys.”
She spent more and more time with El (only Karen called her that, her family called her Nora), and when Bob asked her to marry him her first thought was how she couldn’t wait to call Eleanora to ask her to be her maid of honor.
Dr. Connell frowned when she told him. “Are you marrying this man just to get closer to his sister?”
“No, of course not.” The doctor said nothing and she added, “Well, maybe a little bit. If I’m married to Bob, then El and I will be sisters.”
“What’s wrong with just being her friend?”
Karen felt like she was trying to work something out. “I don’t know,” she said. “It feels like we have to be actual sisters. And like…like someone has to pay a price somehow.”
“What kind of price?”
“I don’t know.”
“And that ‘someone’ would be Bob?” Karen didn’t answer, didn’t look at him. Dr. Connell said “Why not just be close to Eleanora and leave Bob out of it? Why use him that way?”
She shook her head, softly. “He’s just a man,” she said.
Dr. Connell’s eyebrows rose. “Now you do sound like a lesbian.”
“I don’t mean it that way.” She was staring at the floor. “He’s just a man. A person. A human being.” When Dr. Connell didn’t answer she said “Sometimes it feels like no one else exists but me and El. Everyone else are just, I don’t know, shadows. What does it matter what happens to a shadow?”
She looked at him, suddenly ashamed. “Oh God,” she said. “I’m horrible.”
“That’s just a label,” Dr. Connell said. “A judgment. The thing we all need to do is look beyond that, see who we really are.”
Karen knew it was just a platitude but she found herself squinting, as if she actually could see a vision of herself that was far off, or small, or hidden. The office wall, with its tribal masks and paintings, seemed to shimmer, and beyond it—endless gray hills, crowds of people, sullen, slow… She made a noise, like someone startled suddenly from a dream.
“What is it?” Dr. Connell said. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” Karen told him. “I was just—I don’t know, it was like I fell asleep or something. Sorry.”
For their honeymoon plans Bob surprised her with a booking on a cruise ship, and was himself surprised when she recoiled, as if he’d offered her a snake. Karen told herself it was because she’d be out of range of El, whom she called every day, sometimes two or three times. But there was something else—the thought of being on a boat made her queasy, she couldn’t say why. Lately, since meeting Bob and Eleanora, her 3:12 “appointment” (as she and Dr. Connell called it) seemed to weaken, but now the feeling came back stronger than ever, and it was only mid-morning.
Bob thought it was fear of seasickness, and told her “Just think of it as a gigantic ferryboat.” The spasm of terror that seized her was something Bob had never seen before. He reached out to comfort her but she ran from the room.
Bob canceled the trip and they went to Paris. Karen got a global cell phone and called Eleanora every afternoon, often from the ladies’ room in a museum or café, so her new husband wouldn’t notice. Sometimes Eleanora called her at night, when Bob was asleep, and Karen would step onto the balcony of their elegant hotel room, talk for an hour or more, and then tell Bob the next morning that she was tired from jet lag.
The day after Karen and Bob returned, Eleanora called Karen at work to tell her she felt dizzy. The next day she felt faint, and the day after that as well. Karen told her to rest, said she’d be over later that day. After they hung up she thought maybe she should insist El go to the doctor. She could go with her to make sure she did it.
She called back and got no answer. Less than five minutes had gone by, had El gone out to the store or something? Karen interrupted her boss in a phone call to tell him she had to take care of an urgent errand. When Eleanora didn’t answer the bell, Karen let herself into the apartment. She found her sister-in-law on the floor, unconscious and bleeding from the side of her mouth.
The doctors called it a rare brain parasite, and gave it a name even they couldn’t seem to pronounce. Incurable, they said. Waste away, they said. No terrible pain, they said. And, three months, they said.
After the diagnosis came, Karen sat with unconscious Eleanora all night, held her hand long after Bob and El’s parents had gone home to rest. When her sister-beyond-all-laws finally opened her eyes, Karen whispered “I love you, El.”
Eleanora’s family wanted to make her comfortable. Bob found a hospice called JourneyCare, but Karen refused to give up. She bullied the parents and the doctors to send Eleanora to a clinic where they could try exotic and experimental drugs. She went into debt to bring in doctors from Europe, she found shamans who waved dog bones up and down Eleanora’s body, and rubbed her bald head with some sort of animal grease. Bob argued with Karen, said his sister needed peace, not torture by false hope and quack medicine.
“I’m not giving her up” Karen said.
“It’s not about you,” Bob said. “Who the hell put you in charge of the sick and dying?”
Every day, at 3:12 pm, the queasiness returned. I don’t have time for you Karen told it and tried to push it away. One afternoon, just after she’d given Eleanora some juice, the sick feeling hit her so hard she had to sit down on the metal chair at the foot of the bed. Looking through the jumble in her purse for Tums she came across the wooden boat. She held it in her hand, stared at it, then closed her fist around it so hard she could feel it cutting her palm.
“It’s okay,” Eleanora said. “I’m all right.”
“No. You’re not. You can’t die. There’s no point if you die.” El didn’t answer. Karen kissed her cheek, her forehead, her lips. “Take my body,” she said. “I never wanted it. It’s all a mistake.” She had no idea what she was talking about.
El smiled. “Aren’t I the one who’s supposed to get delirious?”
The next morning, Dr. Connell emailed her. She’d stopped seeing him when he started talking about acceptance, and stages of grief, and almost didn’t read his message. But no, he told her how he’d been cleaning out old magazines from his waiting room when he came across an article about a Healing Tree. There was a sick girl, and she went to a place where three rivers meet, and there people prayed for her, and instead of dying she’d turned into a tree. Now sick people went there to touch the trunk or the branches, and sometimes they were healed. Not always, of course, probably most people went away disappointed, but still…
Karen had to stop reading. It was the first sign of hope, and yet, just the thought of it somehow made her sick, she wanted to trash the email, get El from the nursing home, and just go—somewhere. Instead, she called Bob and told him they needed to arrange for nurses so they could take Eleanora on a trip.
They flew to a newly constructed airport some fifteen miles from the Tree. There they hired a white limousine converted to a hospital room on wheels and traveled straight to the site. Crutches and other aids lined the road, many of them, the driver said, left by people who had not yet been healed, but who wanted to show their commitment. There were long lines of people standing (or sitting in wheelchairs) behind ropes with guards, but the limousines were allowed to pull to the front, for its passengers to mingle with the people who came off the private yachts in the river. No one seemed to mind. Almost everyone had come from far away, and there were performers to tell the Tale of the Tree, and food, and spiritual healers to pray over people and promise them health (“No connection to Tree” their leaflets read, apparently a legal requirement). Everyone seemed to believe they’d come to a place of safety, where sickness just stopped, as if it had given up and now just waited to be destroyed. They believed this even though they could see people faint on line, or cough blood, or worst of all, leave the Tree still covered in sores. Those people, they told themselves, didn’t believe. They didn’t want to be healed. It wasn’t the Tree’s fault.
When Eleanora and her family reached the front of the line, men in white nurses’ uniforms offered to carry El to the trunk. No, Karen said, she would do it, she didn’t need any help. But she just stood and stared at the Tree. It was so much bigger than she had thought it would be. The lilacs were in full bloom even though it was way after the season. The smell made her nauseous.
When Bob suggested they let the nurses do it, Karen lifted El into a tight embrace against her body and walked forward. Karen was wearing a long gray dress, with big pockets for medicine, and something in one of them pressed sharply against her thigh. The boat, she realized. She didn’t remember taking it. I have to get rid of it, she thought. She and Eleanora would be safe if she could bury it some place, or just throw it away. But Eleanora felt so empty, if Karen set her down for just a moment a breeze might lift her right out of her body, to drop her in the river.
The river. There was something out there, among the crowded boats, something big, and gray, and patient. Don’t look, Karen thought, look only at the Tree.
The branches waved, and a voice seemed to come from the rustling leaves. It spoke softly, only for Karen. “So,” it said. “You’ve come.”
Karen didn’t know where the sound came from, or if others could hear it, but she didn’t care. “Please” she said. “You have to help her. She is my life, my heart.”
“You who are called Heartless in every tongue?”
“I don’t understand what you mean.” But as she spoke the words—or thought them, she wasn’t sure—a fear swept through her that she was lying, that she knew exactly what the voice meant. Images came to her, endless mounds of colorless dirt, black stones, crowds and crowds of people with downcast eyes. And boats. Squat ferryboats on a dark river.
Karen turned her head, she couldn’t stop herself. There it was, among the yachts and cruise ships, something only she could see, a gray ferryboat, heavy in the water, filled with more people than you would think it could hold yet none of them touching each other. Karen looked away but the image stayed. She could still see the one figure that stood out, a young man with slick black hair and ruby cufflinks.
“Please,” Karen said to the Tree. El felt weightless against her now, an origami doll. “Heal her and we’ll go away and never bother you again.”
“You have a choice,” the Tree said.
Hope lifted Karen’s heart. “Tell me what to do.”
“Either you go on the boat or she does.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. It’s time to return.”
The memories came clearer now. The hills, the shadows, the lines and lines of dead shuffling off the boats. She said “I won’t go back.”
“Then she goes. I will heal her but only if you return. So you see, it is you who is killing her.”
“Why are you doing this to me?”
“You wanted to be human. To escape. Why shouldn’t you suffer what all humans suffer?”
Karen looked away. She could feel her body shift, become longer, freer in some terrible way. She remembered it all now, her sisters, the contest. “It wasn’t my idea, I just lost a contest. That’s all. And then I forgot.”
The Tree said “If you hadn’t wanted to run away you would have remembered. You had the reminder, every day.” Still holding El against her, Karen took the boat from her pocket, stared at it. The Tree said, “And now you have a choice.”
Karen threw the boat at the Tree. It disappeared among the branches. “Choose,” the Tree said.
“There is always a price. Choose.”
For an instant she could see her life as Karen, everything that would come if she chose herself over Eleanora. El would die, and Karen would create a memorial. She would live a long time—a flicker of a moment, really, but it would feel like forever. She and Bob would entwine together, the memory of Eleanora kept warm between them. And then?
She set El down against the trunk. Immediately the branches bent down to form a cage around her. When Karen—Forever—tried to reach in and touch El one last time the branches stung her, like nettles. “Goodbye, my darling,” she said. “You will live a good life and then I will see you again. I will wait for you. I promise.”
But she knew it was a lie. As she stepped onto the ferryboat that waited in the river, as she accepted the white hand with its ruby cufflink, she knew that even if she might one day recognize an aged Eleanora she would feel nothing. How could she, for just one among so very many? As the boat slid away from the shore to take her home, she looked back one more time. She saw the cage of branches fill with light, and then it was gone. And everything was shadow.
© 2010 by Rachel Pollack
First published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by Gordon Van Gelder, May/June 2010.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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